Grading Biden’s first year in office
It’s been a year since Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Elected as the anti-Trump, Biden was supposed to bring competence, stability, and decency back to the highest office in the land.
How has he done so far?
If you ask most Americans, the answer is “not great.” After entering office with 55% job approval ratings—decent by historical standards—Biden’s popularity has steadily fallen to below 41%. This is still higher than Trump’s approval after his first year in office, but lower than any other president’s one year in. The decline has been broad-based, as sharp among Republicans as it was among Democrats and independents. As a consequence, his party is now headed toward almost certain defeat in November’s midterm elections, and his own reelection prospects are looking increasingly shaky.
What happened? My take is that Biden has been more notable for not being Trump than for any major accomplishments of his own. For that, the president’s first year in office gets…a B-.
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Read on for Biden’s full report card.
Pandemic response: C
Biden entered office pledging independence from the pandemic by July 4 as long as Americans masked up and got vaxxed. He overpromised. Since then, almost half a million Americans have died of Covid, and the nation is now reeling from a third wave of infections from the highly contagious Omicron strain.
To his credit, Biden’s pandemic response was guided by science, a welcome change from the Trump era. He leaned hard on vaccines, making shots widely available and imposing a vaccine mandate for federal employees. More than 200 million Americans got vaccinated over the course of 2021, an important accomplishment. However, about one-quarter of the population—over 80 million people—didn’t, almost all of them Republicans with no intention of ever getting inoculated. Biden tried to nudge them with a vaccine mandate for large private employers, but he was promptly shot down by the courts. This failure has made America the country with the lowest vaccination rate in the industrialized world.
While no one could have done much more to bridge the partisan divide or prevent new variants like Delta and Omicron from emerging, the administration’s zeal to sell vaccines as a silver bullet raised expectations too high and led it to neglect other ways to stop the spread of the virus. The US never developed testing and tracing infrastructure to contain outbreaks. It took until January 2022 for the government to start distributing free at-home rapid tests and high-quality masks. And while the administration did restore funding to WHO, lift Trump’s vaccine export ban, and donate more doses than any other country, not enough was done to end the pandemic in the developing world (where the mutated strains developed).
That said, although pandemic fatigue and his (predictable) failure to deliver a “return to normalcy” have eroded public trust in the president, I believe Biden’s handling of the pandemic will look better from the rearview mirror. According to some studies, US vaccination efforts may have prevented more than one million excess deaths in 2021—no small feat.
The economy: A-
After experiencing a sharp pandemic-induced recession the year before, the US economy grew by 5.7% after inflation in 2021, the fastest pace since 1984. America is the only G7 country whose economy is now larger than it was before the pandemic.
Although part of this impressive recovery reflects a mechanical rebound from 2020’s contraction, the speed, scale, and breadth of the expansion is unprecedented by historical standards. It was fueled in significant part by Biden’s American Rescue Plan—the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by Democrats in March that delivered checks to most Americans, expanded unemployment insurance benefits, and lifted nearly half of the country’s poorest children out of poverty—and the administration’s Covid vaccination campaign.
Consumer spending, private investment, and new business formation went up sharply, poverty is at all-time lows, and over 6.4 million jobs were created—almost as many as were added during the first three years of Trump’s term combined (excluding 2020, when almost ten million jobs were lost). Wages surged by 4.7% on average and by twice that for low-income workers, and the unemployment rate ended the year at 3.9%—lower than it was in January 2019.
It’s not all been rosy, though. Consumer prices rose by 7% in 2021—the fastest pace since 1982. This is a problem for people whose purchasing power is being eroded, and it’s a problem for Biden. But the moderate inflation we’re experiencing is not a policy failure: it’s a natural consequence of people having more money to spend. In this case, it’s also a consequence of pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions. This means there’s little Biden could do to control it without choking off the economic recovery. Thankfully, even taking inflation into account, the average American had more disposable income in 2021 than in either 2019 or 2020, and the poorest 80% of households saw their net worth increase. Real wages have also been going up, especially for the lowest-earning Americans. Still, even when they are a symptom of abundance, rising prices are a bad (and politically salient) look for an administration that has made the mistake of downplaying them.
Foreign policy: C+
Biden came into office promising to bring America back, but his first year was marred by several missteps and crises, starting with Afghanistan. The president delivered on his (and Trump’s) pledge to end America’s longest war, in my opinion a necessary and inevitable decision. But even as withdrawal was the right call—one that none of his predecessors had been brave enough to make—the execution was a disaster. The debacle tarnished America's image, damaged relations with our allies, put a gruesome regime in control of a deeply unstable nation, and precipitated a downward trend Biden’s approval ratings he has yet to recover from.
Then there was AUKUS, the US-UK-Australia submarine deal that led a betrayed France to momentarily recall its ambassador to Washington. Although the scandal was humiliating for Emmanuel Macron and dented his relationship with Biden, subsequent damage control managed to smooth things out.
Biden’s China policy also started off on the wrong foot after American and Chinese officials traded barbs in Alaska. Relations have since stabilized, although Biden has continued Trump’s hard line toward Beijing, including by building on the former president’s trade and investment restrictions. Credit is due for the high degree of coordination with allies and partners achieved through coalitions like the Quad and AUKUS, a shift from Trump’s “America alone” approach. Similarly, and despite the AUKUS diplomatic incident and the failure to coordinate with European allies on Afghanistan, transatlantic relations nonetheless improved markedly under Biden.
What we haven’t seen from Biden is a trade policy. Restoring America’s credibility and effectively competing with China requires that the US join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and theTransatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). But there’s just no domestic constituency for major trade agreements at the moment, so Biden has had to settle for small ball deals here and there while largely staying on the path set by his predecessor.
When it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump dismantled and Biden campaigned on restoring, the jury’s still out. After an initial burst of hope that an agreement could be reached, negotiations were dealt a death blow by the change of leadership in Tehran. However, it now seems like there’s an outside possibility of a limited agreement.
Finally, there’s the ongoing situation in Ukraine, where Biden has generally gotten policies right—treating Russian demands seriously, laying out clear (and bipartisan) consequences for Russian aggression, coordinating effectively with allies and partners—even if deterrence ends up failing.
Overall, I'd say Biden has done better than Trump on the international stage, but that’s a low bar. America’s not really back.
Climate change: B+
After four years of “clean coal” talk, Biden made climate change a policy priority once more, embedding it into US foreign and domestic policy and naming former secretary of state John Kerry as special envoy.
On the global stage, the president rejoined the Paris Agreement and took on a leadership role, convening several high-level summits through the year to boost international cooperation and pressure other leaders to increase their efforts. The COP26 summit in Glasgow went better than anyone expected, with movement and enhanced urgency on net zero targets, methane reduction, carbon trading, deforestation, and more. The US signed on to most initiatives and spearheaded some like the Global Methane Pledge. It’s not a stretch to say that almost none of the outcomes could have been achieved with a less climate-friendly president sitting in the White House.
At home, Biden adopted more ambitious decarbonization targets, revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and signed a historic infrastructure bill that contains the nation’s largest-ever investment in clean energy, green infrastructure, and climate resilience. In the face of a closely divided Congress and a 6-3 Supreme Court, though, Biden wasn’t able to secure legislation for new regulatory tools like a clean energy standard or to salvage the $555 billion in climate spending that was included in the now-dead Build Back Better bill.
Legislative agenda: C-
Biden inherited one of the thinnest Congressional majorities in recent memory, which made passing any big bills difficult from the get-go.
The president therefore gets solid marks for jamming the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through swiftly, which was key to cutting the pandemic-induced recession short and saving millions from poverty. He also managed to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with bipartisan support in November, containing $550 billion of long-overdue new investments in roads, bridges, rail, transit, power grids, water pipes, and broadband to fix the nation’s outdated physical infrastructure and address generational challenges like climate change and the digital divide.
On the flipside, Biden spent a lot of political capital trying to sell the Build Back Better bill—a $1.8 trillion social spending and climate bill that was his signature campaign promise—and a voting rights bill, both of which are now stalled in Congress with slim odds of ever passing. A closely divided Senate meant the president needed every single Democrat to support his legislative agenda, but he couldn't convince or compel Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) to back him.
Ultimately, for a man who was elected as a consensus-builder and seasoned aisle-crosser, Biden has been unable to unify the various factions within his own party—let alone to bridge the partisan divide—to advance the most ambitious parts of his (still moderate) agenda.🔔 And if you haven't already, don't forget to subscribe to my free newsletter, GZERO Daily by Ian Bremmer, to get new posts delivered to your inbox.
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